This month, we begin the transition away from a Trump era and toward a new presidency based on peace and cooperation. There is no area where this renewed vision is needed more than foreign policy. Trump has taunted, mocked, and burned bridges with our allies, while simultaneously cozying up to some of the most brutal dictatorial regimes around the world—especially those in the oil-rich Middle East. The damage done by the Trump administration runs deep, and it will take hard work and a clear understanding of the extent of the damage to fix it. With foreign policy primarily driven by the Executive Branch, President Biden has a tremendous opportunity to reorient our foreign policy in the region.
Trump began his presidency by backing out of the Iran nuclear deal, which had been a major feat in diplomacy with buy-in from all five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council—China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, the United States—plus Germany and Iran. The deal was not only notable for the countries that it brought to the table, but for what it prevented: a nuclear-armed Iran that could threaten the United States and risk a global nuclear war.
Nearly every action taken under President Trump has made armed conflict more instead of less likely. Trump imposed crippling sanction after crippling sanction on the Iranian people—depriving them of much-needed medical supplies during a pandemic and further tightening the brutal authoritarian regime’s grip on power. He ordered the assassination of an Iranian commander—risking all-out war—earlier this year. As a result of these actions, Iran finally backed out of the nuclear pact that Trump himself had torn up in 2018—and now has 12 times more enriched uranium than would have been permitted under the agreement.
Meanwhile, Trump has cozied up to some of the most notorious human rights abusers in the world, including Saudi Arabia, a regime responsible for some of the worst atrocities of our young century. Under absolute monarch Mohamad bin Salman (“MBS”), Saudi Arabia regularly imprisons, tortures, and kills advocates for human rights and political reform in their own country—especially women’s rights advocates. Using US weapons, Saudi Arabia has bombed, blockaded, starved, and slaughtered thousands of Yemeni civilians in its war in Yemen. After resolutions to end US arms sales to Saudi Arabia passed both houses of Congress with overwhelming majorities, Trump vetoed all of them. When MBS was linked to the murder of exiled Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018, Trump bragged that he “saved his ass.”
But the shameless celebration of human rights abuses didn’t end with Saudi Arabia. In the run-up to the election, Trump brokered so-called “peace deals” between the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, Sudan, and Israel. Besides the very well-documented war crimes in Yemen, the UAE has also been credibly accused of committing war crimes in Libya. It is also reportedly paying for child soldiers from the same militia that committed the Darfur genocide, badly undercutting the transition to democracy in Sudan. Bahrain is a brutal dictatorship that summarily executes political dissidents and protesters, including religious leaders; routinely uses torture and arbitrary detention; and targets human rights defenders and women.
Are these the regimes we want to be empowering?
In truth, these aren’t peace deals as much as they’re arms sale deals to human rights abusers. And they’re less about normalizing relations with Israel than they are about forming military alliances against Iran. Proxy wars between Saudi Arabia and Iran continue to rage in Yemen, Syria, and, to some extent, Libya. And these alliances only further align the United States and Israel with the Gulf states in these conflicts. Soon after the UAE deal went through, Trump proposed a staggering $23 billion in arms sales to the UAE, which the administration admitted was linked to the deal. (I introduced resolutions this week to ban these sales.)
And we must ask: What do these agreements mean to the millions of Palestinians who continue to live under Israeli military occupation? Rather than make statehood or self-determination more likely, they have normalized the occupation and made real peace for Israelis and Palestinians increasingly unlikely. In exchange for recognition, Israel supposedly agreed to halt its planned annexation of Palestinian land. But just this week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited an illegal Israeli settlement in the occupied West Bank and ordered that imports from these settlements be labeled “Products of Israel,” suggesting that de facto annexation will move forward apace. The autocrats in the Gulf seem to be OK with this arrangement. As former director of the US Office of Israeli human rights group B’Tselem Mitchell Plitnick wrote, “The motivations of the Gulf states are as clear as they are indifferent to the concerns of the Palestinians.”
President Biden has a tremendous opportunity to reverse this. Instead of siding with one group of dictators over another, we should position ourselves at an equal distance from both, allowing ourselves to be honest brokers, protecting our national security and interests while promoting human rights and democracy. We can hold Iran accountable for its human rights violations while also holding Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and the UAE accountable.
This applies to the occupation as well. Ignoring the suffering of the Palestinians runs counter to our most basic values. Moreover, it threatens our national security. No less a figure than Trump’s former defense secretary said that the United States pays “a military price every day” for our role in perpetuating the occupation. As I have said before, we must reinsert the call for a two-state solution with full human rights and self-determination for both Israelis and Palestinians back into the public debate with urgency.
More broadly, we must recognize that keeping tens of thousands of troops in the region is a failed endeavor. When people’s only interaction with the United States is through weapons sales and our military presence, they see us as an imperialist occupying force. It also sends a signal to the rest of the world that we care more about material interests like oil than we do about democracy or human rights.
We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reorient our foreign policy away from shortsighted military alliances and toward justice. We can create an America that means what it says when we claim to stand for human rights and democracy. An end to arms sales to dictators. An end to collective punishment of innocent civilians. And renewed support for multilateralism and accountability. I hope President Biden seizes this opportunity.